Most people love to say that they hate politics. It's not a recent phenomenon, nor is it true of any particular Americans today or in the past. We have a tradition of believing that the best government is one that stays out of our lives as much as possible. We treasure our personal freedoms and liberties. Those values come first.
Of course, we also have a lengthy list of things we believe government ought to be doing for us. Keeping us safe heads the list. But not far behind are making sure our roads are paved and plowed, our schools educate our children, our elderly are not neglected, the courts are fair and just, our water and food are not contaminated, and so on. If these and other things are not being adequately done, we're not happy.
It's safe to say we have a mixed set of feelings about government. And they're no more apparent than on Election Day. When Americans go to the polls, one of the major thoughts running through our heads is, at what point is government enough and at what point is it too much?
Every American answers that question differently. Some have a more conservative view, and others have a more liberal outlook. However, most Americans are not overly ideological, and, when we think about it at all, we just want a comfortable balance that lets us get on with our lives and not have to be bothered too much.
A lot of this is simpler when you're a kid. By the time you're an adult (or maybe even sooner for some), you begin to notice that the world is affecting what happens. This world might be your own neighborhood, your whole country, or even the globe.
You begin to realize you have a choice. I can think this through and decide what I'd like to see happen, or I can ignore everything and let the world kick me around however it wants. While the second option has its appeal (Never Never Land?), the first choice seems to be the responsible thing to do.
Thinking and acting responsibly will mean taking others into consideration, along with your own wants and needs. If the first tough part is admitting that the world is out there, then the second tough part is realizing that it's made up of people who might or might not share your views.
You might discover that some of these folks have ideas you never considered. Before long, you're thinking about things that include yourself, your community, and those you don't even know. And you're wondering what might be best for everyone.
Americans have a label for this: citizenship. Some would call it an American's civic duty. Native-born Americans will usually first encounter it when they are children in school. You're taught flag salutes, patriotic songs, and happy stories about famous people. You might even get a refresher course later on called "Civics" or "Problems of Democracy" or "Social Studies."
Beyond that, Americans are pretty much on their own. Of course, how you are raised can make a difference. Kids know whether their family votes in elections, watches or reads the news, and how they react to the outside world.
But it's mostly through schooling that we are political educated, unless you come from a very untypical family. Not many American families will literally propagandize their children (i.e., "Don't come out of your room until you're a Republican!")
Becoming civic-minded is a personal journey. It's a trip into the world. And like most ventures, it will almost certainly be memorable in any number of ways. Democracy (our method of resolving a lot of this) is life expanded to include the political dimension of decision making. Its goal is justice for everyone involved.
It's designed to be a reasonably fair process (whoever said life is always fair?) and open to participation. The decisions that result will not be neutral in their effects. Some people will win and others will lose. It's a celebration of community and the political culture we've chosen.
Those who win most frequently tend to be people and groups who participate -- vote -- in the process. Who has participated most in this country over, say, 250 years? White, middle-aged, educated males. Who has participated the least? Non-white, poor, very young, and very old females.
Admittedly, for a long while the laws didn't allow the latter voices to be heard. The rules have been improved (mostly). Participation in our democratic process is now essentially open to all Americans. The door has widened significantly to being both heard and advantaged when decisions are made. Ask any government official and they'll tell you that the voices come from every direction.
In the end, you can look at voting in two ways: I can take part in my community for selfish reasons (i.e., There are things that I want, so I'll play a role in the process in order to get them). Or I can participate because I realize it's for the well-being of everyone (i.e., I care about other people too.) Either way, by voting, you've transformed your life and become not only a real American, but also a citizen of your world.